Juvenile law change forbids minors from being held in adult prison

Juvenile justice advocates are applauding a rule change recently enacted by the state Supreme Court that precludes authorities from holding juveniles in adult prisons pending their appearance in juvenile court.

The rule, enacted on June 28, clarifies the definition of a detention facility to specifically prohibit county or state jails and extends the definition of a juvenile to include a minor who has been detained for violation of the terms of their probation.

The Juvenile Court Procedural Rules Committee suggested the rule change after learning of concerns that juveniles were sometimes being temporarily held in adult prisons pending a hearing in juvenile court to determine if the minor had committed the alleged violation that led to their detention.

Attorney Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said such instances are relatively rare, but do sometimes occur because of ambiguity in the law. The rule change makes it clear that no juveniles can be held in an adult jail, except in cases in which the juvenile has been charged as an adult.

Under juvenile law, the case of any minor age 10 to 17 who is accused of a crime is heard in juvenile court, where a judge decides if the youth is delinquent or not delinquent – the adult court equivalent of guilty or not guilty. Once in the system, the youth can remain under juvenile court jurisdiction until age 21, however.

“Every once in a while a judge would find someone who is under juvenile court jurisdiction, but over age 18, and want to teach them a lesson and put them in county jail. Now, as long as you are under juvenile court jurisdiction, you are not allowed to be put in an adult facility,” Mr. Schwartz said.

Youths who were placed in adult jails typically were held only a short period, but that can cause lasting harm, Mr. Schwartz said.

“A great deal of harm can happen to kids in an adult jail in very quick time. Certainly nothing good happens to them while they are in there,” Mr. Schwartz said.

Attorney Larry Moran, chief public defender for Lackawanna County, said the jailing of juveniles in adult facilities has not been an issue here. He said he’s pleased to see the rule enacted to ensure all jurisdictions follow the same principles.

“It’s an excellent change that reflects the true purpose and intention of the juvenile justice act – to rehabilitate children who are deemed to be in need,” Mr. Moran said. “It does not make sense that kids should be locked up in institution that punishes adults charged with crimes.”

The rule change, which is binding statewide, does allow for some exceptions. Any juvenile charged as an adult can be housed at an adult prison, regardless of age, Mr. Schwartz said. And any juvenile who is age 18 or older and fails to appear for a juvenile court proceeding can also be jailed in an adult facility.

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com

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